Star turns, extreme food and Masterchef…

IT’S not often that you spot a star chef sitting in Paolo’s place.

Some time ago, and I couldn’t say when, I was having a pizza in the Italian café Il Paradiso del Cibo, known to most people in York as Paolo’s, thanks to the looming presence of owner Paolo Silesu, who is represented on one wall by a massive oil painting. Another wall is given over to Italian football on the large television screen.

The food is great and the pizzas are the best in York. Paolo has had a colourful relationship with City of York Council over the years, with various run-ins, but he keeps going and his characterful café is often full.

Anyway, that’s Paolo’s place. The chef I spotted was Michael O’Hare, who had two restaurants in York, the Blind Swine and then Le Cochon Aveugle, almost opposite Paolo’s in Walmgate. The second name was a bit of word-play, being the same but in French.

At least I think it was O’Hare. I’m not that up on chefs. But on Monday we were watching Masterchef when what looked like the same man popped up on television, coaching the contestants to prepare some elaborately weird food. The mullet was neater, but other than that the similarity was striking.

“He used to come into the shop,” said Gina, who remembers serving him. God knows what he bought in a health food shop, as his food is bizarre in its theatricality.

O’Hare now runs The Man Behind The Curtain in Leeds, a restaurant acclaimed for its extreme menus, although the man himself doesn’t see it that way, telling the Independent last year, “I don’t want people to think this is an extreme restaurant.”

On Masterchef, the 34-year-old from Teesside got contestants to make dishes such as raw prawn tails with cooked prawn brains – that produced a resounding ‘yuck’ from the veggie end of the viewing sofa – to a dessert with baked potato custard and puffed potatoes in beetroot vinegar. Extreme? Oh we eat like that every day in this house…

Le Cochon Aveugle, O’Hare’s old restaurant, is still in Walmgate by the way, but now in different hands. I haven’t been thanks in part to circumstances of a ledge nature. The Guardian gave the place a rave review recently, saying after the first mouthful, “Everything that follows makes us grin like eejits.”

All of which is a long way round to talk about Masterchef. Now I love this ridiculous programme; I even love the things I hate about it (those close-ups of John Torode shovelling great forkfuls of food into his mouth; Greg Wallace shuffling about doing his elbow-poking barrow-boy act over the prospect of a pud; a sense of drama more befitting an attempt to find world peace rather than a few platefuls of imaginative food, and so on).

Yes, I am addicted to Masterchef. That is funny in a way as I hate many talent shows and refuse to watch The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent or The Voice. I do like a bit of Bake Off, although only the original: I couldn’t bring myself to watch the professional spin-off, and I don’t watch the Masterchef derivatives either.

Maybe it’s the food, as I do like a food programme. Yet if you take your eyes off the food for a moment, what is Masterchef but a middle-class version of The X Factor? Still, I don’t care: nothing will sway me from watching, and the contestants this year have been pretty remarkable. So it’s not the food, it’s the people. Or a bit of both.

Incidentally, while we were in London we had a meal at the Mexican chain Wahaca, set up by former Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers. The food was very good and not at all expensive, so there are some ‘real world’ benefits to Masterchef after all.

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